“Tiki Modern: Style for the Sophisticated Savage” at Palm Springs Modernism Week

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As I mentioned before, there were several tiki related events at Palm Springs Modernism Week this year, including the lecture “Tiki Modern: Style for the Sophisticated Savage” presented by Sven Kirsten, author of The Book of Tiki and Tiki Modern.

Tonga Hut Palm Springs sponsored the event, and as a bonus for the attendees they distributed free posters of the event flyer, which features Kim Novak posing with a Cook Islands fisherman’s god in a promotional photo for the film “Bell, Book & Candle.” (It’s actually one of several photos of the cast with tikis.)

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In order to make the Hilton ballroom look less corporate and a little more tiki, Sven brought along these two carved saloon doors that once adorned the Reef Bar (since closed) at Caliente Tropics (still open) in Palm Springs. They disappeared 20 years or so ago but were rediscovered recently and will be installed over at Tonga Hut Palm Springs.

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The talk touched on many tiki topics, including Sven’s initial surprise at finding that tiki’s influence in its heyday wasn’t just limited to bars and restaurants but also carried over to apartments, hotels, bowling alleys, etc. (particularly on the West Coast and “recreational states” like Florida and Arizona).

Sven also talked a bit about his upcoming “Tiki Pop” exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly this summer. For those of us who won’t be able to jet off to Paris, there will thankfully be a 400-page catalog (with 900 illustrations) published by Taschen that will be available for purchase.

Related Posts:
Reviews of Tiki Bars in Palm Springs
Previous Palm Springs Modernism Week Coverage
“The Book of Tiki” 10th Anniversary Art Exhibition

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The Tropics Restaurant – A Tiki Ghost Town

When we were wrapping up our Palm Springs trip with a stop at the Caliente Tropics motel, I thought we’d also get to check out The Tropics Restaurant and Conga Room bar, which had re-opened a few months prior in what used to be The Reef.

To our surprise, it was closed (and apparently barely re-opened in the first place). It looked so empty it was kind of creepy, like zombies were going to appear from around that motorcross mural…

The room facing the pool was supposed to be turned into a tiki bar, hence the A-frames, but I guess they weren’t able to secure a liquor license.

These shelves were once filled with tiki mugs, but they’d been cleared out along with other tiki design items by Bosko and Crazy Al.

Apparently some interested parties have checked out the space, but nothing seems to have come from it. Something along the lines of Hula’s Modern Tiki would be perfect.

Anyway, we ended up doing what probably most guests at the Caliente Tropics do when they want a bite to eat, which is go to the coffeeshop at the uber-hipstery Ace Motel next door.

King’s Highway was definitely not a bad place to wind up, though. Their ALT breakfast sandwich ($11) really hit the spot. Mmmm, fried egg, bacon, avocado, tomato and harissa aioli on a brioche bun…

Caliente Tropics – Palm Springs, CA

Over the decades, America’s fascination with Polynesia has inspired tiki bars, tiki apartments, tiki mini-golf, a tiki drive-in, tiki liquor store, tiki tattoo shop and, as you’ll see, tiki motels. (In fact, there’s even whole chapters dedicated to them in The Book of Tiki and Tiki Road Trip.)

Caliente Tropics, originally called The Tropics, opened in Palm Springs in the heyday of tiki in 1964 and was part of Ken Kimes’ motel empire. Included were five tiki-themed motels in California—Indio (Coachella-land), Blythe, Modesto and Rosemead were the other locations. The Oceanic Arts tikis in the parking lot are definitely worth a look.

The resort has had a tumultuous history, going from being a rundown place of somewhat ill repute to hosting the inaugural Tiki Oasis event. Unfortunately, changes in ownership/management have kept it in a state of flux.

The lobby is covered with bamboo, lauhala matting and thatch, plus there’s a few tikis (like this foam Ku carved by Marcus Pizutti), chunky swag lamps and a rock waterfall fountain in the corner.

This Easter Island tiki plaque by Bosko was part of the property’s extensive renovations from about a decade ago.

I liked these little thatched A-frame huts for two out on the lawn. Looks like the perfect place to lounge in some very valuable shade and escape the desert sun for a bit.

Adjacent to that area is the pool. Behind it, the signage is still up for the Reef bar, which opened in 2003, was renamed Hawaiian Bill’s a couple years later, then closed in 2009. (Editor’s Note: The Reef has been reborn, thanks to Rory Snyder — founder of Tiki Caliente and Mod Palm Springs events. This “tropical-themed libation sanctuary” opened in 2017.)

We didn’t stay there, so I can’t speak to the quality of the rooms…

Caliente Tropics Resort
411 E. Palm Canyon Dr.
Palm Springs, CA 92264
760-327-1391